What we found, instead, were cotton fields, razorwire, a fancy casino, and an alligator.
My husband, Buck, and I are thinking about trying to find an affordable lot on a lake or river that’s not too far from home. We live in Pensacola, Florida. Property taxes are a lot lower just across the line in Alabama, so we decide to take a short reconnoiter. Besides, there’s nothing like a short road trip to cure a dose of cabin fever after a cold winter.
The north end of Pensacola’s Escambia County sits right up against the south end of Alabama. We drop our old chocolate Labrador retriever, Maggie, at her favorite hotel, the Lucky Dog Resort, and drive north out of Pensacola on Highway 29.
The first defined wide spot in the road is Cantonment, then it’s on to Molino, Pine Barren, Bojia, McDavid, and Century, where Florida ends and Alabama seamlessly begins at Flomaton. We know for sure that we have crossed the line into Alabama when we see begin to see FIREWORKS!! signs everywhere.
Hand-lettered signs may litter the road, but they enliven the journey, and we see lots of them on this drive. They offer hot-boiled peanuts, wildflower honey, and homespun philosophy, like “Perfect love casts out fear.” Or the entrepreneurial, “Miss Ann, Palm Reader.” A little farther down the road, I chuckle at a sign on a ramshackle building that looks about one week from falling in on itself: It says, “DELI – Come In And Find Something Good.”
We cross the “Skippy” White Bridge and continue on through Brewton, self-described “Home of Music Legends.” That may be. It was also the home of my late Daddy, and it used to be home to a fine bar and grill called “Willie’s Place,” where folks could drink whiskey, eat rib eye steak at the bar, and polish off their meal with a piece of warm local blueberry pie topped with vanilla ice cream.
Buck and I cross the Conecuh River on the road to Damascus, past churches, cows, and a pretty little yellow frame house. I’m a sucker for pretty little yellow houses. My ears buzz and I feel flushed when I see two brick chimneys standing upright in the middle of a field off to my right. The burned out remains of a house are scattered in large shards between the chimneys, and surrounded by a field of serene green.
A few miles on down the road, I am admiring a field full of spirited-looking horses, when I notice a deer blind on the other side of the field. Buck dryly notes that if a concealed shooter was sitting in that blind, his gun would be pointed directly at the highway. Red-top clover lines the roads. A hawk flashes golden.
We pass the Auburn University Silvicultural Test Center and several miles of beautifully manicured forests and fields. I see Highway 137 to Wing, Alabama. I’ve never been there before, but I love the name. “Oh, yes, I’m from Wing,” I might say, and someone, someone like Sir Sean Connery, might murmur, “But of course you are, Darling.”
Just before we get to Andalusia, a great big sign shouts “DEAN’S CAKE HOUSE.” Then we gawk, like I’m sure everyone else does, when we pass by a huge, ostentatious mansion followed straight away by an equally huge but more at ease with the landscape place called “Lonesome Dove Ranch.” It’s nice to roam around the countryside and see how people live when there is no homeowners’ association busybody telling them what they can and can’t do.
Lake Gantt is only about a hundred miles northeast of Pensacola, but Buck and I had gotten a late start leaving Pensacola, so we don’t catch a glimpse of Lake Gantt until after 3:30. Gantt is a small, non-navigable Alabama Power Company lake. It has a reputation for being a redneck Riviera for folks who like to fish, run around in a small boat, or just hang out on a dock without being bothered by a whole lot of rules. We see a “lots for sale” sign and drive into a short cul-de-sac for a look. The lots are on a high bluff overlooking the lake. Someone in one of the houses nearby has cranked up the music to a perfect pitch. An acoustic guitar accompanies a sweet-voiced southern guy singing “Jambalaya On the Bayou.” Good thing there isn’t a sales contract in front of me.
We poke around the lake for more than an hour. Locals in their pick-up trucks stir up the red clay roads as they maneuver around our citified black sedan. The prevailing architecture around the lake is Early Fish Camp, with several rather stunning examples of over-the-top gentrification. There are some appealing spots along the way, too, comfortable homes where years of laid back loving seem to have softened the very air. A bridge across a portion of the lake is too low to accommodate a boat, and we can see that the lake has a large number of cypress knees sticking up in clusters. Beautiful, but not the looked-for image in my mind’s eye, nor Buck’s.
“Well, I believe I’ve seen enough,” Buck says. “How about you?”
“Yep,” I replied. “That’s one question answered. Let’s move on down the road.” We point our car toward Monroeville, and the Holiday Inn Express bed we had reserved for the night.
The road to Monroeville takes us through the town of Red Level. A light rain freshens the chartreuse greenery of producing pecan groves, just-planted cotton and soybean fields, and acres of silky wheat full of promise. The John Deere dealership looks so fine to me, with all its pretty tractors. And in the town square, or what passes for it, we see families gathered drinking lemonade and having a picnic to raise money for the volunteer fire department. Dozens of little kids are gathered around the shining new ladder truck.
I feel a punch of emotion as I look at the scene. America. It’s still here. America: the hopeful, the bruised, the wondering. America: the seeking, the wayward, maybe the returning. This moment alone makes the trip.
“I missed the truck route,” Buck notes as we drive past the picnic scene.
“I’m glad,” I say, looking over at him.
“If I hadn’t, you wouldn’t have gotten to see this.”
We cross the Sepulga River near the sign for a seemingly non-existent town called “Herbert.” Just past Herbert, a huge sign in bold letters startles me: EARTH SLIDES. For one psychedelic moment, I imagine the earth opening and shifting around like some rebellious jigsaw puzzle, and I give a startled jump like a person awakened suddenly from one of those “falling” dreams. Then I see the high embankments on either side of the road, and realize the EARTH SLIDES sign is like ROCK SLIDES with no rocks.
In the tiny burg of Repton, I see a large, successful-looking business. It is the Cope Funeral Home. “May I give you my card?” says the imaginary salesman in my mind. His card is printed with one word, in big letters: COPE. I respond, “I’m doing the best I can…”
When Buck and I arrive in Monroeville, we circle the venerable old courthouse a couple of times and slingshot around it once more to find the road to the Holiday Inn Express. Monroeville was home to iconic authors Harper Lee and Truman Capote, Now, it caters to visitors at Radley’s Fountain Grill and The Mockingbird Grille.
The front desk clerk at the Holiday Inn is busy trying to help a couple figure out how to get veterinary help for a poor stray cat that is sick or hurt in some way and won’t come out from under their van. Kim, the clerk, has been here before. She is kind, but firmly efficient as she tells them no one will come to help, and agrees it is a terrible situation. The faces of the man and woman show their distress. Their little curly-haired strawberry blond toddler catches my eye and smiles as she walks around on the faux stone floor like a young gymnast on her first day at the balance beam.
Kim never misses a beat. She continue to commiserate with the young couple while she checks us in. She hands us a small paper folder that encases our plastic door entry card and says, “I upgraded you to the Jacuzzi suite.”
“Thank you. That’s great,” I say. Maybe Kim can’t provide the “yes” that the couple hopes for on behalf of a hurting cat, but a room upgrade — this she can do. Maybe it makes her feel better. I hope so.
The room is fine; big for a Holiday Inn Express room, but there is something a little weird and not particularly romantic about having a Parade of Homes size Jacuzzi bath tub with cultured marble surround and a step up to get into it — trust me, this was necessary — all sitting in a sort of living room area with a truly ugly couch directly across from it.
On Saturday morning, we drive deeper into the heart of Alabama’s Black Belt, an area named for its rich black topsoil and noted for exceptional deer hunting. We are on our way to take a look at Lake Dannelly at Miller’s Ferry Landing. where developers are trying to sell lakefront lots. The Miller’s Ferry Landing area is most famous as the home of the gifted Gee’s Bend Quilters.
The road from Monroeville to Alberta begins to look more and more like the land that time forgot. There is an amazing amount of road kill for such a little-traveled road. Stubborn buzzards in the middle of the road are worse than the adorable hairy cows of Scotland, who placidly claim squatter’s rights on rural byways there.
At Beatrice, Alabama, a banner posted by The Beatrice Alabama Garden Club declares it to be Clean-Up Week. I swear, this tiny spot in the world is a veritable oasis of lush landscaping, artfully arranged picket fences, swept sidewalks and blooming flowers. I blink several times to be sure I am not imagining this lovely place. We drive on, and the nostalgic aroma of cut wood from a visible pulpwood plant pervades the air. It is not at all unpleasant, but rather reminds me of childhood visits to my grandparent’s home near Jay, Florida.
The morning is a little gray and drizzly at first, but brightens as we drive down Highway 21 from Monroeville toward Lake Dannelly. We have an appointment with an Alabama Land Partners salesman. They are marketing a development called Legacy Shores on Lake Dannelly. Buck and I are not babes-in-the-woods when it comes to hot-box land sales operations, and are prepared for the worst. But we are in luck, because the fellow who gives us the tour really is what he appears to be: simply a nice young man.
Not long ago, $150,000 would buy the best Gulf-front white sugar sand cream-of-the-crop building lot. Seemed outrageous until they went to $500,000 and beyond, into the stratosphere. Recently, prices are slumping somewhat, but still are high as a Georgia pine. Fishing lake lots used to be a different matter. They could be had for a price more folks could afford. But the Lake Dannelly lots that are actually on the water have asking prices ranging from $120,000 to around $200,000. Not much infrastructure, and the location is somewhere past the back of beyond. Amazing.
They are pretty, though. Just what a lake lot should be. While Buck and the salesman walk and talk, I watch Canada Geese on the water with my little birder’s binoculars, see an osprey fly, and listen to woodpeckers. One of the less expensive lots that fronts on a dead end slough apparently comes with its own five foot alligator. He is on a log out in the water. His golden eyes meet ours. The poor salesman looks crestfallen. Lake Dannelly is about three hours from home, and we want to get back in time to pick up Maggie before the Lucky Dog Resort closes for the day, so we take the nice young man’s card, thank him for his time and get back on the road. Really. It has nothing to do with the alligator.
I revel in the lush countryside as it flashes by. It is unexpectedly hilly. The curvy roads feel like foothills driving. We wind through the town of Uriah, with its huge cotton gin. I notice a little wooden shack nearby with a sign nailed on it: “Jerry Clower CDs.” We see the old Blacksher Mansion, which Buck says was moved from the family’s original home place in Virginia and reassembled in Uriah, (pronounced YOU-rye), board by numbered board.
The next town of any size is Atmore, home of the dazzling new Wind Creek Casino and Hotel, a 225,000 square foot casino complex owned by the Poarch Band of Creek Indians. The casino and hotel complex is like a mirage in this otherwise desolate area. It rises 17 stories, and has four world-class restaurants, 1600 gaming machines, and 236 luxury hotel rooms. Buck and I are eager to get home, so for now, we just drive by and stare in astonishment, figuring we’ll come back another time with our fancy duds and spend the night.
On the other side of town, we drive straight through the Atmore Community Work Center, one of a whole nest of prisons in the area. Guard towers and coils of razor wire stacked against high fences are right by the road. The casino complex and now this. Surreal. Twilight Zone stuff.
We drive along in silence for a few miles, and then we see a big two story home sitting back from the road. There is a large oval man-made pond in front of the house, surrounded by what looks like pasture grass. Stuck in the ground just beyond the pond is a big sign: “Before you left your house today, did you think to pray?”
The sun is low in the sky by the time we reach the pastoral farm community of Walnut Hill and the fertile fields of Molino, where we turn south onto Highway 29 and suddenly are only a half hour away from dog and home.
We didn’t sit on a dock or buy any land. But we saw some lovely water, laughed at roadside curiosities, were moved by the magnificent ordinariness of folks, drove the back roads and the blue highways, and were relieved from the relentless sameness of interstate highways.
We came. We saw. We meandered.